Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius by Peter Ostwald

Wednesday book

Tuesday 07 October 1997 23:02
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He grimaced, he sang, he hummed. He conducted himself with whichever hand wasn't occupied at the keyboard. His position, arms level with the keys, was eccentric. As was his chair: 14 in high, upholstery burst, the pianist's weight born by his genitals resting on the bare crossbar. And he was a hypochondriac.

Glenn Gould's eccentricities were as famous as his playing. Indeed, they contributed to making that playing famous. He was a pianist with a unique, extreme style who gave up public performance to present himself solely through recordings. In the age of mechanical reproduction, Gould encouraged listeners to interfere with his recorded performances. To twiddle our dials, he said, would be to assert the value of "aesthetic narcissism".

"Gould managed to create a living legend of himself," the author of this new biography promisingly writes. Any writer on the Gould trail needs a touch of their subject's savvy and scepticism to get at all close. Peter Ostwald is aware of the complexities. But the symbolic frisson - the case of the real Gould, the virtual Gould, the disappearing Gould - is not his field. The solution to the Gould problem is to combine biographical data with "personal knowledge".

They first met backstage after a concert. "He was ill-at-ease, his face tense and there was some mild twitching of the muscles around his right eye, which detracted from an otherwise youthful, handsome appearance". Ostwald, who died shortly after completing the work, was a psychiatrist. His style, like Gould's polio, can be distinctly sub-clinical. The work's polemical edge is partly responsible: the author hoped his work might stimulate interest in the new speciality of of performing-arts medicine.

Gould was a deserving case, certainly. The name of every doctor, physician, chiropractor and even optician he consulted is dutifully recorded. Medical and psychological "postulations" are scattered through the text. Was Gould's crazy posture at the piano due to his sitting closely with his mother at the piano in early years? It seems plausible until Ostwald reveals that Gould's piano teacher, a Chilean of rigid habit, taught the position. Gould a case of Asperger's Disease? Perhaps. This variant of autism is associated with people gifted "in music, mathematics, drama, athletics, or art".

Ostwald considered Gould his friend but friendship, it seems, was not a Gould speciality. For 10 years the two did not meet. Shortly before Gould's death, aged 50 in 1982, there was one brief encounter, but the atmosphere was sour. Gould's sole communication thereafter was his Christmas card, which "always arrived late". The note of wounded amour propre is unsettling. The revelation that author and subject met just once in the last 15 years of the subject's life is rather more so.

WW Norton, pounds 20

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